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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): "Complete Concertos and Sinfonias for Strings and Basso Continuo"


rec: May 2015, Alessandria, Palazzo Ghilini*; July, Oct & Dec 2018, Tortona (AL), Cappella del Seminario Vescovile
Brilliant Classics - 95835 (4 CDs) (© 2019) (4.23'15")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in C (RV 109); Concerto in C (RV 110); Concerto in C (RV 113); Concerto in C (RV 114); Concerto in C (RV 115); Concerto in c minor (RV 118); Concerto in c minor (RV 119)*; Concerto in c minor (RV 120)*; Concerto in D (RV 121); Concerto in D (RV 122); Concerto in D (RV 123)*; Concerto in D (RV 124); Concerto in D (RV 126); Concerto in d minor (RV 127)*; Concerto in d minor (RV 128); Concerto in d minor 'Madrigalesco' (RV 129); Concerto in e minor (RV 133); Concerto in e minor (RV 134); Concerto in F (RV 136); Concerto in F (RV 138); Concerto in F (RV 141)*; Concerto in F (RV 142); Concerto in f minor (RV 143); Concerto in G (RV 145); Concerto in G (RV 150); Concerto in G 'Alla rustica' (RV 151); Concerto in g minor (RV 152)*; Concerto in g minor (RV 153); Concerto in g minor (RV 154)*; Concerto in g minor (RV 155); Concerto in g minor (RV 156)*; Concerto in g minor (RV 157)*; Concerto in A (RV 158); Concerto in A (RV 159); Concerto in A (RV 160); Concerto in a minor (RV 161); Concerto in B flat 'Conca' (RV 163); Concerto in B flat (RV 164); Concerto in B flat (RV 165); Concerto in B flat (RV 166); Concerto in B flat (RV 167)
Sinfonia in C (RV 112)*; Sinfonia in C (RV 116)*; Sinfonia in E (RV 131); Sinfonia in F (RV 135); Sinfonia in F (RV 137); Sinfonia in F (RV 140); Sinfonia in G (RV 146); Sinfonia in G (RV 149)*; Sinfonia in B flat (RV 162); Sinfonia in b minor (RV 168)*

Marcello Bianchi, Bruno Raspini/Giulia Sardi*, Paola Nervi, Marco Pesce, violin; Elena Saccomandi/Mauro Righini*, viola; Claudio Merlo, cello; Matteo Cicchitti, violone; Daniela Demicheli, harpsichord

Most discs devoted to the instrumental oeuvre of Vivaldi are filled with solo concertos. The focus of this recording is the corpus of concertos or sinfonias for strings and basso continuo, without any solo parts. Vivaldi's oeuvre includes a little over forty of the former genre and around ten of the latter. The genre of the concerto a quattro - scored for two violins, viola and basso continuo - was quite popular in the late 17th century and that did not change at the end of Vivaldi's life. Around 1740 Baldassare Galuppi composed a set of seven concertos in this genre.

There is no fundamental difference between the concerto - in some manuscripts called concerto ripieno - and the sinfonia. As Daniela Demicheli explains in her liner-notes, the main difference is the treatment of counterpoint. This is more elaborated in the concertos, whereas the sinfonias are generally more homophonic. Here the melody has greater importance and the two violins often play in unison. There is also a difference in keys: the sinfonias are all in major keys, whereas seventeen of the forty concertos are in the minor.

Vivaldi's concertos and sinfonias probably date from the 1720s and 1730s and most of them were composed for and played by the orchestra of the ladies of the Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi was acting as maestro de' concerti. Whereas the concertos with solo parts were vehicles to show the ladies' considerable virtuosity, these compositions were more suitable to demonstrate the qualities of the Ospedale's orchestra as a whole. None of the concertos and sinfonias have been published. However, in manuscript they seem to have found a wide dissemination. The Sinfonia in b minor (RV 168), for instance, has been preserved in a source in Sweden. As Venice was one of the most popular places to be for the European elite in the early 18th century, and especially for young aristocrats on their grand tour, it is quite possible that they obtained copies of such pieces, which were not only played at the Ospedale, but may also have been performed in churches and in the opera theatre. In particular the sinfonias could well have been written as overtures to operas. A good example is the Sinfonia in F (RV 137); its andante includes some chromaticism.

The string concertos are often used as fillers on discs or as breathing spaces in programmes with solo concertos. There is no problem with that whatsoever, but it hardly does them justice. In the liner-notes to another disc with such concertos, Lindsay Kemp writes that they contain "dashing scales, pounding basses, flickering arpeggios, exquisitely drawn-out chord sequences, sweetly touching melodies ...". There is no lack of pathos in the slow movements, such as the grave from the Concerto in C (RV 113) and the adagio from the Concerto in A (RV 159). Some movements include considerable harmonic tension, for instance the largo from the Concerto in a minor (RV 161) and the second adagio from the Concerto in d minor (RV 129), with the title Madrigalesco. The latter is one of the two concertos with four movements, the other being the Concerto in g minor (RV 155).

A collection of twelve ripieno concertos is preserved in manuscript in the library of the Paris Conservatoire. These may have been the result of a commission by a French music lover. They include some features of the French style, especially dotted rhythms. The Concertos in C (RV 114) and in g minor (RV 157) belong to this group. The latter is one of the most famous of this part of Vivaldi's oeuvre. In its first movement and in the closing movement of RV 114 Vivaldi makes use of the chaconne, which was an indispensable part of so many French operas and instrumental suites.

The concertos bear witness to Vivaldi's contrapuntal skills. Several concertos include fugues, such as the opening movement of the Concerto in f minor (RV 143) and the closing movement of the Concerto in g minor (RV 152). Although these pieces are ripieno concertos, some include episodes for solo violins; that is the case in the last two movements of the Concerto in g minor (RV 155). Two movements have titles which specifically require playing pianissimo (RV 145, andante; RV 152, andante molto).

In the Sinfonia in G (RV 149), two violin parts have the addition con l'arco (on the string) and have to play staccato, two further violin parts are marked violini pizziccati. The viola and the cello also have to play pizzicato. This indicates that this piece cannot be played with one instrument per part which could be suggested by the first movement which has only two violin and one viola part plus basso continuo. This is probably the reason that the performers play all the concertos and sinfonias with four violins and one viola, plus cello, double bass and harpsichord.

Overall I have quite enjoyed the performances. The ensemble L'Archicembalo may not be of the same standard as the best ensembles of our time, there is no lack of expression and the often irresistable rhythms of the fast movements are well conveyed. The tempi are satisfying, and the performers avoid extremes. In some cases I would prefer a faster tempo, but that is probably a matter of personal taste rather than based on the composer's indications. After all, allegro and adagio don't tell us exactly how fast a piece should be, but rather that it needs to be played vividly. L'Archicembalo certainly does that. It is also nice that the performers make a clear distinction between slow (adagio, grave, largo) and moderate (andante).

These pieces are more than just fillers in a programme of solo concertos; they can perfectly stand on their own feet. That said, it is probably not advisable to listen to twenty or so of them at a stretch. But that was never the intention of the composer anyway.

The title says that this is a complete recording. However, a comparison with the work-list in New Grove reveals that some pieces are omitted, which is not mentioned in the booklet. These are the concertos RV 111 and 117, and the sinfonias RV 147 and 786. Also missing is the sinfonia RV 125, which has been preserved incomplete, and the concerto RV 139, which also exists in a different version (RV 543). The list includes several pieces which are spurious; obviously these have been omitted as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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